The title is a teaser, clickbait even, and those inclined that way are in for one hell of a surprise. Lord Tredegar put the hard in core, but this new book on the reprobate peer focuses almost entirely on death duties and the demise of an ancient estate.
In 1865, Sanford and Townsend in their The Great Governing Families of England set out to remind the nation of the permanence given to English policy by the influence continuing through centuries of a limited group of families.
Foreseeing no immediate end to their hereditary power, the aristocracy had always put the nation’s long term interests before their own for: ‘. . . with the greatness of England their own is indissolubly bound up.’ They were in Burke’s eyes: ‘The great oaks that shade a country and perpetuate the benefits from generation to generation. Similarly for Sanford and Townsend the aristocracy were seen as a thread in our social fabric, one that stretched from Alfred to Victoria. Ideas like these were an integral part of an aristocratic self-consciousness and succinctly expressed in George Meredith’s novel Beauchamp’s Career. Rene, a French aristocrat explains:
‘ I know my ancestors are bound up in me by my sentiments to them . . . We shame them if we fail in courage and honour . . . If we break a single word, we cast shame on them; why that makes us as we are.’
And then we have Evan Morgan who saw Tredegar House as a venue for extravagant parties. The writing was on the wall even before his death and those he left behind paid the bill. Between profligacy and swingeing death duties his inheritance was all but obliterated.
William Cross wisely sandwiches essentially dry letters between some potted background for those who know nothing of Evan Morgan, and ends with a detailed timeline of his life. There are a few stylistic infelicities in the potted background, but then we get on to the letters, an absolute goldmine for the historian and—that word again—hardcore aficionado of all things Evan.
They reveal the last death throes of an ancient estate being torn apart by land valuers, Inland Revenue, and the National Trust—which was initially seen as a safe port of call. The letters by their very nature are dry. That’s the nature of bureaucratese. In the words of the Honourable Emily Eden commenting on William Gladstone: (If he) ‘were soaked in boiling water and rinsed until he were twisted into rope, I do not suppose a drop of fun would ooze out.’
What does ooze out is the tragedy of a vast, historic estate being torn apart by scavengers in pinstripes and perhaps wearing spectacles.
The book, Evan Lord Tredegar, Final Affairs, The Aftermath is beautifully produced and has some wonderfully evocative photographs, but its primary aim is to wrap up a history; as I said earlier a goldmine for historians, background for writers of historical fiction and those interested in the decline of an ancient family. For the general reader, I’d recommend instead earlier books that focus on the essentially tragic history of Evan and his sister Gwyneth Morgan.